They think it’s all over … The football sim series that has graced the gaming charts every year since its launch in 1993 is about to face the final whistle, thanks to a licensing tussle with Fifa. Next year, Electronic Arts will be revealing its annoyingly named replacement, EA Sports FC, but for now, we get to run out on to this heavily branded pitch one last time.
It’s immediately clear the development team was determined to go out on a high, throwing in a range of vital updates. At last we get to play women’s league football, if only within the English and French premier divisions. Still, it’s fun to play as the stars of the recent Euro 22 tournament, making a mazy run into the box as Beth Mead or marshalling the Olympique Lyonnais defence with Wendie Renard, and it may be genuinely inspiring and educational for girls who have got into the sport through that glorious summer tournament. And there is full online cross-play between consoles of the same generation (PC owners are able to play against PS5 and Xbox Series X pals) in seasons and friendlies, as well as Ultimate Team, broadening your competitive base considerably.
How does it play? It’s really rather lovely. There is a fluidity to the action that contrasts with the somewhat ponderous Fifa 22. It’s not quite the turbo-charged ping pong feel of classic Pro Evo, but the zippy passes and pacy off-the-ball movement allow for sweeping attacks that feel genuinely exciting. There seems to be a much more granular employment of analogue button presses too, allowing well weighted crosses and accurate long-range strikes. While the set pieces are still not perfect, you can now add spin and bend to the ball with the right analogue stick, and use a slightly more instructive onscreen pointer to get the direction right.
Updated impact physics add greater unpredictability to collisions and loose ball situations. I’ve seen a through ball connect with the back of the target player’s boot, sending the ball rebounding back to me; I’ve powered in a low cross that has spun wildly off a defender’s shin and into their own goal. These capricious little moments add a nice sense of realism and tension to the game. Meanwhile, players now have one of three types of pace – explosive, lengthy and balanced – bringing variety to how they chase the ball and outrun rivals. The likes of Thiago and Traoré can call on a quick burst of speed, peeling away from nearby opponents in a sudden blur, while Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw will stride the whole length of the pitch, gathering momentum as they go. Brought together, the new additions provide moments of genuine visual spectacle: play for long enough and you might see Lewandowski audaciously chip the keeper in a crowded box or Bernardo Silva volleying a stray ball into the top right-hand corner from an angle so acute it would make Euclid shake his head in disbelief.
Throughout every match there are pleasing visual moments: players pulling dainty step-overs to change direction, the ball spinning up water from a wet surface; the net billowing wildly as a shot makes contact. Even the commentary is bearable, despite the odd Accidental Partridge moment from Derek Rae (after a fumbled throwout that results in a goal: “And the goalkeeper is wishing, quite simply, that he hadn’t done that.”)
There is as ever, a lot of football on offer here. Quick Play lets you launch straight into a single match or a tournament either alone or against friends or online competitors. Skill Games test you in various elements of passing and shooting. Volta is street football with a lot of fancy moves. In Career, you take either a player or manager through their entire footballing life, handling all aspects of their ascent, as a timetable of matches, training sessions and transfer dramas rolls by. This hasn’t changed hugely since the last game, though the presentation is neater and you get the chance to take part in Playable Highlights of matches rather than having to go through the entire 90 minutes. It’s kind of like an interactive version of Match of the Day, and feels tense, fun and demanding.
Then, of course, there is the monstrous Ultimate Team, where you buy virtual packs of player cards to build a super-squad of heroes while trading swaps and challenging other Fifa owners to online matches. For me, the big addition is Moments, a new set of single-player challenges that let you earn currency towards card packs and loan players. These might be mini skill challenges, or you could be tasked with replaying key moments in a major player’s career. New stuff arrives daily so there’s always a way to earn packs for nothing. Fifa 23 may be more generous with its freebies than previous titles, but at its heart Ultimate Team remains a fiendish loot box specifically designed to prompt fans into regular card pack purchases. The dopamine-piquing quest for elusive star players is as real as ever.
Controversial player-packs aside, Fifa 23 is the culmination of EA Sports’ philosophy. This series has always talked about realism, but it was for many years a Roy of the Rovers-style of realism – a penalty in the dying seconds, a scissor kick goalline clearance, a 35-yard screamer bending through the air like a misfiring exorcet missile. Now it feels like the physics, AI and animation have come together in a way that makes even these ridiculous moments feel naturalistic and pleasurable. The first Fifa on the Mega Drive billed itself as an authentic experience of real sport, real drama, real spectacle. It wasn’t then, but perhaps, in this final iteration … it is now.
Fifa 23 is out on 30 September; £54.99